Women in Product Management: Rachel Schiff, VP Product Management at Virgin Pulse

For our next installment of the Women in Product Management Series I interviewed Rachel Schiff, VP Product Management at Virgin Pulse

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How did you get into Product Management?

My first job out of college was as a software project manager. I transitioned from that into software engineering, because building the product seemed like the exciting part. After a few years I realized that I wanted to be in the role that got to decide what the product was going to be. For that career change it made sense to go back to business school to get my MBA. Business school was a great opportunity to look around at different careers and see what I liked. I dabbled in a few things and realized that I loved working in software because you get to bring new experiences to life and work with smart people. Out of business school, I went straight into being a product manager and I have enjoyed the role ever since then.

What do you find most interesting about your role?

I love that it’s something new every day. I like that you get to create experiences and solve people’s problems. I like the range of focus, from high-level strategy, pricing, and the product mix to what their features should be. Today, I had a client call about concerns about the wordings of different options presented to the user, every detail really matters. I like that the role runs that full range from tiny details in the client experience to the overall business strategy.

What part do you find to be most challenging about the role?

I think the most challenging part of product management is when you’re boxed in by previous decisions and you have to find the way out. When you come in to manage an existing product that seemed right at the time and now you have different use cases. You have to determine how long you keep adding features versus redesigning the product.

Any missteps along the way?

Early in my career, I was in charge of a project team and we had our first kick-off for a consulting engagement with a client. I was in charge of organizing the team dinner and I asked the hotel for a recommendation and they said there was only one place nearby, so I made the reservation there. As it turned out, the only alcohol the place had was Bud and Bud Light. The team teased me about that forever.

It was an important lesson to learn to make sure that you’re thinking about not just the work itself, but how you’re supporting the team its formation. Make sure that you’re enabling your team, including the forming of bonds within the team.

How do you drive success with your team?

I think on a project basis, it is really important to define success. Understand when you start building something why you’re building it and how you’re measuring it. Is it for users? Is it for buyers? What metrics are you going to use to measure success? It’s difficult to feel successful if you haven’t defined the metrics for Success. Obviously on a higher level we define success as our users loving our products and we’re expanding the market by appealing to ever more buyers.

When you’re interviewing for new team members, what are you looking for?

We use the Lencioni criteria of an ideal team member: being hungry, humble, and people smart. There are certainly a lot of skills that are also relevant, but those are three that really do help people function within a team. I work in an environment of rapid growth, where the business and product have been growing rapidly. Each individual is going to be asked to do things that they’ve never done before. You want to pick individuals who are capable of working well in combination with other people.

What advice do you have for women who want to get into product management?

I think that the breadth of the product management role is so great that all the skills you already have will definitely be useful to you. That is true whether the skills are technical, strategic, organizational, user research or building relationships. Then you’ll need to develop skills in the other areas. But whatever skills someone is bringing, there’s a place for them in product management.

Any guiding motto or principle?

Listen to your users (and your buyers). I’m working in a B2B2C environment. We sell to large companies who then sell our app to their employees. We really serve two masters. The employers buy our product and their employees use it. There are so many different directions we can go in, and we have to make sure we are staying attuned to the needs of buyers and users, and letting those guide us.

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